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28 June, 2012

Dr. Bigelow's Time Machine

Olympia's first church/school-house. Asahel Curtis photo, citation at the end of this post.

In 1853, Olympia was neither capital nor part of a state, not even free of Oregon territory yet. It was a ramshackle frontier town, late enough in Native history to be a shadow, and early enough in American history to be attractive primarily to scoundrels and dreamers. I guess it should not come as a surprise that the citizens (of what country? maybe we should call them denizens) were having the same arguments that they have today.

Take a look at this passage from the journal of Daniel Bigelow, a lawyer who (in a reversal of modern expectations) fit more in the dreamer than the scoundrel category, being a supporter of letting non-whites own land, providing women the vote, and other heresies:

(November 8, 1853) Am endeavoring to get funds raised for a school having been elected a director, on the 4th Inst. Find some men who profess great interest in the welfare of the country, that will not pay a school tax or contribute to support a school.  I consider the heart of all such men rotten at the core  That they are destitute of principle and have no laudible desire to advance and encourage morality, and promote the general welfare.  And I here record my determination never to vote for such men, nor trust them nor deal with them only in case of necessity, For a man who has no interest in schools, to my mind has no interest in honesty

Yup. Even before we were a state, there were precursors of the 21st Century GOP, individuals who sought unfettered commerce. And by unfettered, I mean with utterly no responsibility to the common good. Maybe they figured their kids could be shipped back east for education, or maybe they considered education an abomination (though the Origin of Species had yet to be published). Maybe they were home-schooling their kids in between felling virgin forests and stealing Salish prairies for farmland.

"But hold on a minute," you might say. "Who said that people who oppose public education were commerce-boosters?" Daniel R Bigelow, that's who:

(February 8, 1854) The first election for Washington Territory just past. Columbia Lancaster elected Delegate to Congress, Myself one of the Councelman for Thurston Co, in the Legislature.  Great efforts was made to defeat my election by the grocery influence, because I do not patronize groceries.  But I hope to live to see the sale of liquor prohibited as a beverage in this Territory, and decency and morality prevail.

Replace "groceries" with "CostCo," or for that matter, jsut keep "groceries," and you have one of the most recent election's main issues encapsulated. It makes me want to start a Bigelow Community Garden, where we can grow food free of the impure grocery influence. Not that I'm against liquor, mind you, but more the influence of a particular capitalist enterprise putting itself above the public good of, for example, having state store which employed a thousand or so people at a living wage, and which did not sell liquor late in the evening, when people are more likely to get in trouble with it, and which had no accounting tricks to keep the state revenue from flowing to other public goods. 

Some of you may have detected an anti-religious bent to my statements above, a residue of evolutionist thinking that proves bitter to the pious palate. But again, that's not the case. I know some religiously observant people from the various monotheisms and polytheisms who are genuinely good, who love their fellow humans, and treat them with kindness and respect. Religion does not (always) douse that flame of common human decency, but hypocrisy does, as the good Dr. Bigelow (himself a habitual churchgoer) noted:

(October 28, 1853) Several of the new Territorial officers are in town.    since their arrival rowdyism has greatly increased in town. There is to-night a ball which is considered a fashionable affair, because it is patronized by the officers. Professed Christians go, for the benefit of society as they allege (but really for fear they will not be ranked with the aristocracy. I am at present considered rather an odd chap, not showing respect and attention enough to the said officers etc for which they are going to ride over me rough shod (if they can)

So there we have it. Same-old same-old. I wish we'd learn, but I'm not holding my breath.

And now, for the citation I promised you:
Negative NumberA. Curtis 01401
RepositoryUniversity of Washington Libraries. Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives Division
Repository CollectionAsahel Curtis Photo Company Collection no. 482

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